AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

When I started writing this piece, I’d noted that one of the few things the federal government had managed to not stuff up in recent months was crumbling to pressure and rushing off to build expensive open-air quarantine facilities.

As it turns out, that praise was premature, with the Morrison government announcing it will sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Victoria to build a facility in Avalon.

While ending hotel quarantine is critical, the call to urgently build quarantine facilities is a year too late and unnecessarily shifts attention from the Big Show: vaccinating at least 50% of Australians.

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The demands to create quarantine are the wrong solution to an obvious problem: hotel quarantine is not fit for purpose. While turning leisure and corporate hotels into temporary prisons has actually been reasonably effective, more than 100 leaks has shown that it isn’t a suitable medium-term solution.

While critics like Mary-Louise McLaws and Mike Toole are absolutely correct in pointing to the airborne nature of COVID-19, they take an unpragmatic approach to solving the problem they correctly diagnosed, like most health experts who haven’t worked in the commercial world.

The solution to the airborne nature of COVID-19 isn’t to spend several billion dollars developing Howard Springs clones near every capital city airport but to supercharge the rollout of vaccines, which have been shown to prevent death and hospitalisation in almost 100% of people.

While the purported cost of the single facility in Victoria with 500 beds is $200 million, some estimate the cost will end up closer to $700 million.

So, let’s look around the world, given no other country is planning to build more quarantine centres. Israeli data indicates that when you hit 70% immunity (through a combination of high-efficacy vaccines and recovery), deaths and transmissions are reduced to near zero. But Israel is the high watermark — Britain has fully vaccinated only 39% of its population and deaths have been reduced to well below regular flu-season levels.

So, let’s work backwards.

To hit 50% coverage (above UK levels), 12.5 million Australians need to be vaccinated or 25 million doses provided. We have done almost five million now, so that’s another 20 million needed. The Victorian lockdown has led to a renewed urgency with vaccinations and as second doses of AstraZeneca start being doled out, we’re likely to see a sustained level of one million weekly doses from here on. That’s 20 weeks to turn COVID-19 into the flu, a virus we have co-existed with for centuries.

At a million doses per week we’d be at “Israel coverage” by just after Christmas. Even better, Victoria is on track to have partially vaccinated more than 70% of people aged over 40 by the end of the month. In case you were wondering about how effective vaccines are, a 99-year-old vaccinated Victorian contracted COVID-19 last week and was asymptomatic (without the vaccine, she would have statistically had around a 30% mortality risk).

By the time the fresh-air quarantine facilities are built, it will be probably February 2022. By then every Australian who wants to be vaccinated will have been, and the rest of the developed world will have been largely open for six months. Rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on white elephant quarantine facilities, the federal government would be better off rewarding every vaccinated person with a $100 restaurant voucher (which also has the benefit of helping struggling small food businesses).

By then, with a vaccinated population, we would be able to join Europe, the Middle East and the US in allowing quarantine-free travel — and the need for taxpayer-funded short-term prisons with sky-high price tags will be a distant memory.

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Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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